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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Susan's Original Essay (James Frey and now Mike Daisey)

pink prom dress
Does it matter if the prom dress was pink?

This is the original 2006 essay of novelist Susan Henderson. She and I had a public conversation over the nature of truth in memoir--or in anything labeled "non-fiction--at the time that James Frey appeared on Oprah and embarrassed the entire publishing world.

With the admission by Apple critic Mike Daisey that he made up stuff in order to make Apple look bad, and his vigorous defense of his lying so we would all care about what he cares about, Susan and I both thought of the discussion we had in 2006.

She has given me permission to reprint her essay here with this caveat:  "...(just make it clear it's something I wrote in 2006 because who knows if I still agree with myself)." My response to her, which she posted on her site at that time, is here. My original post on Mike Daisey and the importance of actual truth to non-fiction writers and readers is here.

Deconstructing Memoir by Susan Henderson

I've literally been kept awake by my experience of watching James Frey's lashing on Oprah. I very rarely watch TV that's not a football game, but I tuned in and was disturbed to see journalists, rather than memoirists, commenting on the lines writers cross when telling their stories. I was also disturbed by the idea of fact hunters. Now Frey and JT LeRoy have crossed lines that don't need to be re-hashed here, but I'm interested in the mushy area of memoir as told by people really respected in the business, from Mary Karr to Tim O'Brien to Truman Capote to William Maxwell. Some published stories about their lives as non-fiction, some as meta-fiction, and some as fiction—but all drew from life and then focused not as journalists but as writers who cared about presenting their themes within the beauty of language and plot. This is the discussion I wanted to see—not a stoning but a real discussion of where we draw the lines and where is a writer allowed to take liberties in order to find the important elements in the story such as rhythm, engaging dialogue and bringing a reader into a visual world when the specifics may have been forgotten.

 (Apologies to faithful readers of my blog who like my brief entries. The truth is, in my real life I'm unbearably talkative, so much so that I have a rule with Hubby that he can go to sleep after 11pm if I haven't shut up.)

Last month, I finished writing my memoir, so this issue is important to me. Several things happened accidentally when I wrote my memoir. For one thing, it appears that I have no siblings. Now, my novel happens to have a brother in it who reminds me quite a bit of my own, but my memoir has no brother. Why? Well, that was an accident, but my memoir focuses on carrying shame into your parenting style and frankly he wasn't relevant to the story. Even if he was, I might have left him out for privacy reasons.

Now, often people are more interested in my father than they are in me because he is relatively well-known. There is no mention of this in my memoir. I don't even mention what he does for a living. This also tips "the truth" and again it was an unconscious decision. The story I wanted to write was not about growing up in a shadow of a public figure or even growing up with its share of the limelight. Again, this was left out because of the scope of the book.

Floor-Length Taffeta Short Sleeves Yellow Prom Dress 2011
Is the dress a better story when it's lemon yellow?
So let me deconstruct a story I recently published in the magazine Other Voices. It is what I consider to be a true story but I did not set out to write a "true" story nor did I sell it as one--I happened to submit it as "flash fiction". Some writer friends and I regularly prompt each other to write stories consisting of randomly chosen word-prompts. The story I sold to Other Voices was one of these stories. Each of my friends wrote a piece of flash fiction trying to use the same five words, and I remember one of those words was "lemon" and another was "dryer."

As soon as I gave some thought to the word "dryer," I was flooded with a memory of walking up the stairs to a neighbor's house because their dryer was vented near those stairs. And that reminded me of a time in my life when I had done something very cruel to the girl living in that house that smelled—as you approached it--like a dryer, and the story became about the way shame travels with you in life. (Aha, you say. A recurring theme in this writer's work.)

I'm going to post the story in its entirety here, but I'm going to cut-in when there are elements that are either flatly "untrue" or "unremembered" and why they're there. In the end, I'm curious whether this piece can be considered memoir or non-fiction and whether these are the kinds of facts people should be wasting their time either fact-checking or "correcting."

Okay—so here we go with an 827-word story I would define as "creative non-fiction" but would be happy to sell under the title of "memoir" or "fiction" because frankly I'm comfortable with either word:


NEVER THOSE GIRLS, deconstructed

I lent Anne my dress from the previous year's homecoming. She was not a pretty girl—gangly, frizzy hair, slivers of eyes—and this was the best she was going to look. I stood in her living room as her mother let out the hem [honestly, I don't remember if her mother let the hem out while I was there or if this was my mother who did it. Also, I don't know whose living room this happened in, this is simply how the story came to me] and tied a lemon bow [it was a pink bow. "Lemon" was one of the prompt-words that led to the birth of this story. Now that I correctly remember the facts, I still prefer "lemon" because I like the image better and I like having the extra syllable before the word "bow"] around Anne's waist. When Anne stepped in front of the mirror in my white lace, floor-length gown, I showed her a trick and sprinkled glitter in her hair, only a bit, and she started to cry [Did she cry right then or later? I don't know]. She seemed almost pretty for once, and I looked for a smile to see if I was forgiven, if this would make up for what I'd done to her that summer.

Each morning before we went to the neighborhood swimming pool, Lorna and I came up with tricks to play on Anne, who had begun a habit of pulling a lawn chair up to us when we were talking and waiting for a space to join in. She thought she'd become our friend.

We wanted to know—if she smoked catnip, would she pretend to be high? She did, and the next day it was into the medicine cabinet for more ideas. What would happen if we poured a bottle of ipecac in her beer? If we emptied out capsules and filled them with baking soda or crushed medicines, what would it do to her? Each time we comforted her for her bad trips, and Anne would confess—knees knocking, teeth chattering—to wetting the dining room chair during dinner and the bed that night.

We wanted to stop, but the ideas kept coming, just one more experiment to try, then one more after that. We looked so innocent those mornings at Lorna's kitchen table—my chipmunk cheeks, her dimples—crushing pills into powders. Sometimes I'd get an image of Anne in my head, vomiting pasta like a fire hose or crying as she told us she wanted to hang out the next day.

I walked up the steps to Anne's white-painted brick house. The stairs were shaded and smelled like the dryer vent. I'd always been full of ideas, I knew they'd never stop coming. I rang the bell and waited to tell her to stay away from me. [Sadly, as I remember things, this whole section is "true."]

At a wedding reception I ran into Lorna. She'd become a lawyer but looked just the same with her dimples and dark curls. "I saw Anne," she said, and pulled out her cell phone because she'd taken a picture of her with it [Okay, here is a flat-out "lie". "Cell phone" was another one of the prompt-words. But there are a number of things that it allows me to do in this story. What I want to get to is the reader's understanding that the narrator, (in this case, me) believes she is the cause of Anne looking fat and unhappy. If in the story I had made the other character describe her as fat, the reader might have been misled into thinking that other girl was saying this out of cruelty. What I wanted was for the reader to know that the girl they'd teased had become fat and I wanted to let the reader in on the horror of culpability. I wanted to get to that horror more than I was interested in slowing the pace of the story with unnecessary or potentially misdirecting dialogue]. We looked at the digital image together and neither of us said the obvious, that Anne looked fat and unhappy. Did we do that to her?

There was no reason we'd picked her. We hadn't disliked her, hadn't felt good about how she'd spiraled. We whispered these things to each other, our guilt—the knowledge that we were still those girls, never those girls. We whispered in the corner of the lobby, away from the music and the guests, holding each other near the wrist [I don't honestly remember if we held each other by the wrist but I like this and it communicates something visually and emotionally that I think is important to the story].  All the while, Anne was in Lorna's hand, staring grimly at us in our beautiful formal attire [Obviously she wasn't because there was no cell phone in the other girl's hand. Again, this cuts to the chase of about an evening's worth of conversation where two grown-ups are horrified when they finally speak together about something that had haunted them. In truth, we were much more remorseful than the story implies and we talked for probably an hour about our guilt and our wishes that the girl we'd hurt would have a happy ending. We even fantasized about her telling us off because we felt we deserved that. Now why did I leave all this out? Those of you who are familiar with my writing know that I very rarely redeem my narrator. If I let my narrator have all the self-awareness, it takes away the reader's opportunity to feel the full scope of rage. It takes away the reader's chance to feel outrage on the character Anne's behalf so I purposely left out some things that might have made a reader feel more sympathetic to the two girls (one being me) who had been cruel].  What Anne couldn't see was that I was pregnant but it was too early to announce to anyone, just something hidden deep that brought more consideration to each moment. I placed my hand between my child and Anne's stare and tried to recall what she'd said to me the day I told her what we'd done to her. What had she said?

From the dance floor, we heard clapping. The Hora dance was beginning. Lorna closed the cover on Anne's face and set her inside a purse. The guests formed a circle on the dance floor around the bride and groom, who sat in chairs, ready to be lifted. As the bride rose, I noticed a quick look of fear that she'd fall, then laughter.  [Now, did this all happen? Sure. But this was an editorial choice to end the story with a Hora dance. As a writer, I wanted to turn the story in an unexpected direction. The wedding, fact-wise, is irrelevant to the story. But it helps build an emotion that I wanted the reader to reach without the narrator (me) taking the credit. I needed to bring the cruelty and shame of the story some place without forcing the reader to have any positive feelings about the narrator.]

This is where hope lives, knowing how easily joy bursts from fear. Anne in the dress she never returned, Anne with the grim stare—maybe someone had kissed her in my dress, untied the lemon bow.  [Here I'll share some important "truths" that I purposely left out of the story. I never had to tell this girl what I'd done because she thought she was allergic to beer and drugs. I never would have been caught. I let her cry and scream at me for some time, and I apologized to her often over the remaining years we were in school together. Had I included that in the story, or had I included her campaign to get people to stop speaking to me, the story would have not held the same power I wanted, which was to put forth the idea that sometimes we hurt people with absolutely no excuses for it, and that cruelty often stays with all parties over time.]

I clapped my hands with the crowd, stepped away from the chairs in case anything came flying toward my child. Lorna was nearer the wedding couple. I waved to her, but she was busy passing a scarf to the bride.

There are things in life you can't undo. Things you set into motion, things that are now a part of the world your child will enter. The bride and groom bounced on top of the chairs, letting go then holding on to find their balance. The bride freed one hand to wave the scarf toward her groom, and the crowd burst out in cheer. I cheered, too, not even meaning to—overcome with the feeling, at least in this moment, that the world might rise above the things I had done to it.


So what of the dryer, the first image that led to the rest of the story? Suppose the house with the dryer had been someone else's house, not belonging to the Anne of this story? Suppose the house with the dryer vent was really the house where my piano teacher lived, or suppose it simply came from my imagination? Could someone write a memoir and use that as description somewhere to give the flavor of the neighborhood? Could you write a memoir in which you dress a neighbor in an outfit you remember from your own closet? Or, if you do this, do you have to go on the record as a fiction writer, or even a liar? These things—not made-up jail time or made-up ethnicities—really do interest me. Are we coming to a point where memoirists need to be  that accurate to their memories?

If you've managed to read this all the way through, I thank you for your patience. These are the choices a writer makes when shaping and editing a story. Is the story essentially a piece of non-fiction? I think so. But I cared about rhythm and momentum and word choice, and I cared about allowing the reader to feel and discover emotions rather than the narrator getting credited for remorse or self-awareness, so I added and withheld details for those reasons, and often these were not conscious decisions. To think that memory and ego don't impact those kinds of details all the time, I think, is a very false notion. And to think that memoir is synonymous with journalism is a frightening idea to me.

Thank you, Susan, for beginning this discussion in 2006 and allowing me to re-print your essay here.  To read my response to her,  click here.

Pssst! Going to jail, buying documents, and everything else it takes to get this kind of info for the blog takes time and money! Every time you make a purchase here, it helps me be able to do more for you! 

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